I finished a humanities Ph.D. about a year and a half ago, with an exceptionally unsupportive committee and dysfunctional department. I've had some short-term contract/freelance work since, but my search for more stable employment (including alt-ac and adjunct work) has really been discouraging, and I'm looking for some advice about my next steps.
Broad-strokes background: I pretty definitely chose the wrong institution, though I'm not sure I could have known that when I started my MA. Roughly half of the tenured/TT faculty turned over while I was there, and there was a period of almost five years when literally nobody in my program defended a dissertation. A lot of students in the program struggled with committee changes, bizarre faculty infighting, and generally weak advising—but they all had the benefit of least one or two solid faculty advocates. Even with a change of adviser halfway through the program, I really did not have that kind of support.
Health/disability issues played a role here. I was diagnosed with multiple health conditions in the first few years of my program, and disclosed those diagnoses to my committee. They were superficially supportive, but not genuinely understanding about my need for accommodations while my condition stabilized, and at times were actually quite cruel. (I have been advised, informally, that some of the comments my first adviser made about my "limitations," etc., probably merited legal action under the ADA.) Rather than recognizing this hostility as abusive or inappropriate, I definitely internalized it, and spent a long time believing that the problems I was having with my committee were my fault, because I was weak and lazy and screwing things up. (For the record, although I missed targets along the way because of my health issues, I ultimately completed the degree faster than most people in the program.)
What I didn't see because of this dynamic was that my (new) adviser and second reader were in some kind of battle to the professional death, and that they were trying to pull me in different directions because of agendas that had nothing to do with the content of my work. I also couldn't see that they were criticizing some elements of my work not because there were gaps in my argument, but because they were legitimately not grasping what I was doing with literature that was outside of their expertise. (My adviser was at least better than the second reader about acknowledging gaps in his expertise, and was never actively unkind.)
I'm obviously not going to claim that my dissertation is without faults, that I don't have room to grow as a researcher, or that I haven't made mistakes. But my outside reader—whose field aligns closely with mine—was quite enthusiastic about some sections/elements of the project that my committee dismissed. Other faculty who attended my dissertation defense expressed distress at the conduct of the second reader, and indicated that they thought that she had been unconstructive, needlessly aggressive, and had plainly misunderstood some of my central claims. I wouldn't dispute that I could have done some things better, but I am absolutely sure that I couldn't have done anything to really 'fix' the situation.
I emailed my adviser after my defense to express some concerns about the experience. He told me that he would consult with the chair, and get back to me. He also indicate that he'd give me some additional comments for the final revision before my filing deadline—but he didn't. After I filed the dissertation, I emailed my adviser to request a reference, and to ask if we could schedule time to chat about what I should do next. It has been ages, and I've gotten no response.
I don't necessarily expect my references to be glowing. But am I right in thinking that I am at least owed a response to a request for a reference? And, without that reference, am I correct in thinking that I have basically no chance of teaching again? I do have references from faculty in other departments where I worked as an adjunct/sessional lecturer, but they can't really speak to my research skills, and my feeling is that the lack of anything from my own department makes me professionally untouchable.
I'd be really grateful for any guidance you might have about how to push for a decent reference, or how to finesse the job search without one.